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Monday, February 16, 2009

NIU Geography Student Research: Social Vulnerability and Natural Hazards

Natural disasters are becoming more deadly as climate change and coastal development combine to put populations at greater risk during extreme meteorological events. Less developed countries in particular have experienced disproportionately high numbers of fatalities during severe coastal storms.

Monica Zappa, an NIU Geography graduate student, has identified how social factors play a role in influencing vulnerability to natural hazards. Her research--which was generously funded by the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies at NIU--focused on the community of Bluefields which is located along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Bluefields is a culturally diverse and geographically secluded community comprised of several indigenous goups, many of whom live in extreme poverty. Bluefields also has a history of devastating hurricane events, the most recent being Hurricane Joan in 1988.

Monica began her research by examining various cultural, economic, and political factors that are conventionally used to evaluate vulnerability to natural hazards at the regional and national levels. However Monica's research differs from previous studies in that it also focuses on fine-scale dimensions of vulnerability. By shifting the analysis from a national and regional scale to the individual and community level, Monica was better able to explain how perceptions of risk contribute to vulnerability.

Monica used a mixed qualitative and quantitative approach to identify the socio-spatial determinants of vulnerability to hurricane events. Qualitative methodological procedures including surveys, interviews, and participant observations were employed within the community of Bluefields. These procedures were adopted because of their ability to account for the rich, contextual and social ecological aspects that help shape the community's perceptions regarding extreme meteorological events such as hurricanes.

Results from this research indicate that factors such as trust in government, past experiences, and socio-economic status greatly influence individual risk perceptions. For example, people who experienced severe meteorological events in the past (e.g., Hurricane Joan) are considerably more aware and prepared for the threat of hurricanes in the future, and thus less vulnerable to these hazards. In contrast, subjects who migrated to Bluefields after 1988, or those in the community who were not old enough to remember Hurricane Joan, tended to be less concerned about the potential impact of future hurricanes and thus more vulnerable.

This research found that rapid urbanization has also served to increase vulnerability among populations residing within the study area. At 2,000 new residents per year, the rate of migration into Bluefields is outpacing the capacity for the community to provide adequate housing. As a result, newcomers are moving into informal dwellings made of substandard materials and located in marginal environments that are vulnerable to floods and storm surges.

Overall, Monica's findings lend insight into the complex social constructions of vulnerability as well as the steps needed to protect populations in remote areas from future natural disasters.